What’s going wrong?

In almost every profession you can think of, at least one
African or African Caribbean person has climbed to the top. Yet
despite these signs of black success, black children and especially
African Caribbean boys are still seriously underperforming at

African and African Caribbean children start school at the same
level as children from other ethnic groups, but by the age of seven
many are already falling behind. Their underperformance widens with
each stage, falling dramatically between key stage 3 and GCSE. Last
year just 32.9 per cent of black Caribbean pupils achieved five
grades A to C at GCSE compared with 51.3 per cent of white

In London where more than four in 10 pupils are from ethnic
minorities, the problem is most acute. In 2002 only 21.6 per cent
of black Caribbean boys achieved five good GCSEs.

Race, rather than class is the decisive factor with, for
example, poorer Asian boys outperforming middle class African
Caribbean boys. These glaring inequalities have led London mayor
Ken Livingstone and Labour MP Diane Abbott to bring black parents
and teachers together for a conference addressing the issues. Now
the government has jumped on board, with schools minister Stephen
Twigg on the bill at the third annual “London schools and the black
child” conference.

So why are so many black children failing? Abbott believes that
there is no single explanation and that low teacher aspirations,
unfair behaviour management in schools, negative peer pressure and
negative images in the media all contribute to

Like Abbott, who attracted controversy after deciding to send
her son to a prestigious London private school, many black parents
who can afford to do so are turning their back on a school system
that often fails their children and opting to educate them
privately. Christine Morris, a teacher, school governor and mother
of four, says: “My son started in reception as the only child who
could read. The teacher concentrated on the less able and by year
three I’d got a problem child on my hands. So I decided to
take him out.”

Morris believes that racism is endemic in the education system.
“Sometimes black children start out ahead and get used to not being
stretched. Sometimes parents aren’t involved enough. But what
it comes down to is that most white people don’t understand
where black people are coming from.”

Other black parents see supplementary schooling as a way of
helping their children overcome the disadvantage they may
experience at school. Sylvia Jeffers works full-time as a child
care co-ordinator as well as teaching at the Queen Mother Moore
Saturday School in Lambeth, which her daughter also attends. “The
school is open to everybody but it’s known in the community
that it caters for African and African Caribbean children,” she
says. “We have families that are quite needy and at risk coming.
Some are children with special needs who have fallen through the
net. We also have high fliers.”

Jeffers believes that the role models offered by black teachers
are important, as is the often greater willingness of black
teachers to insist on high standards and good behaviour.
“It’s beneficial for my daughter being in a predominantly
black environment and taught by black qualified teachers,” she

Ritzy Richards hopes that switching from full-time to part-time
work will make a difference to the educational chances of her son,
despite the financial hardship for herself as a single mother. She
finds that working full-time often leaves her too tired to be as
involved with his education as she would like. “I grew up with a
generation of failed black boys and I don’t believe I should
wait until problems arise. I can’t complain about what
happens at school if I’m not willing to assist my child. I
see working part time as the solution and I can’t afford not
to do it.”

As a parent governor, Richards is keen to improve communication
between parents and school. “I’ve been trying to set up a
parents’ forum but it’s been hard to take forward
because the school isn’t receptive,” she says. “They think
it’s going to be a complaining shop. We’re about trying
to educate the school.”

But there is only so much that parents can achieve. A
co-ordinated response is needed to turn the tide. Belatedly, the
Department for Education and Skills is seeking to improve the
recruitment of black teachers and develop specific programmes to
tackle ethnic minority underachievement. American experience, and
anecdotal evidence from successful British schools, indicates that
increasing the numbers of black classroom and head teachers can be
highly effective.

Northumberland Park Community School in Tottenham is one of 30
participating in Aiming High, a DfES-funded initiative. Deputy head
Oveta McInnis explains that the programme includes specific
training for teachers and extra support including mentoring for
African Caribbean pupils. “We aim to create a culture of success
and to target extra support directly at individual groups.
We’ve had whole school action plans before but they were
making very little difference.”

Recognising the crucial role of parents, the school has also put
on several evening events and created a parents’ focus group.
“The aim is to get more parents actively involved, engaging them in
an equal relationship on what we’re teaching. We rang every
single parent to ask them to come.”

Any school hoping they might get a slice of the £1.7m
allocated for the programme is likely to be disappointed. A
spokesperson for the DfES said that once the projects have been
evaluated the lessons learned would be disseminated more widely.
“There isn’t scope for more schools to join while the pilots
are running, and it wouldn’t necessarily be the case that
extra funding would be made available.” For the millions of parents
dismayed by their children’s underachievement, it feels like
too little too late.

The need for more black teachers

The paucity of black teachers in London schools was an issue
highlighted at a conference last month organised by the London
Development Agency. Almost 20 per cent of London school children
are African or African Caribbean, compared with just 2.9 per cent
of teachers.

Trevor Phillips, chief executive of the Commission for Racial
Equality, called for emergency measures to increase the
representation of black teachers in schools. Citing the example of
one African Caribbean head who raised performance at GCSE from 16
per cent getting five A to C grades to 52 per cent in a single
year, he said: “It matters who’s in charge. We need more
black teachers willing to challenge children’s attitudes.
Recognising diversity is not a substitute for a decent education or
for equality… For every African Caribbean boy on a university
campus, there are two in jail. That is the measure of the

New research published to coincide with the conference explodes
the myth that Caribbean boys are not interested in
education.1 A study of pupils in years eight to 10 found
that African Caribbean boys were more likely than their white or
Asian peers to believe it is “very important” to receive a good

Another striking finding is that almost half of African
Caribbean boys believe they have different school experiences to
white pupils, compared with 27 per cent of African boys and 29 per
cent of Asian boys. Their answers to other questions suggest that
the difference may be more one of perception than of reality, with
pupils of different races giving similar responses to statements
such as “most teachers expect me to do well at school/really care
about progress and achievement/listen to what I have to say.” There
was also no difference in responses between the white and African
Caribbean boys to the statement “I am often in conflict with
particular teachers.”

The Educational
Experiences and Achievements of Black Boys in London Schools
, the Education Commission, London Development
Agency, 2004

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